The Perfect Crisis Vegetable: Prickly Pear Cactus

Unsurprisingly, during this crisis, the Root Simple inbox and phone line has come alive again with questions about growing vegetables. My response is always the same. Grow the stuff that’s easy to grow in your climate. To that I’d add that you should consider edible perennials.

In our climate the king of edible perennials is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica, but note that there are many other edible Opuntia varieties). The young pads (nopales in Spanish) are coming into season right now. The fruit, called tunas, are ready in the fall.

With prickly pear cactus you get a vegetable and a fruit in one easy to grow package. It’s so easy to grow that your problem will be keeping it from taking over your entire garden and your neighbor’s garden. Plant things like broccoli and carrots and, depending on your soil and experience level as a gardener, you’re in for a lot more work and, likely, disappointment. Trust me, I’ve killed a lot of vegetables in the past twenty years. I’ve never once killed a prickly pear cactus.

Luther Burbank’s allegedly spineless prickly pear.

We have one specimen that came with the house and another that I picked up a few years ago: Luther Burbank’s spineless variety that, well, isn’t actually spineless.

My favorite method for preparing and eating the pads is to scrape them with a knife to remove the spines (you don’t need to peel the skin off). I then chop and boil the pads for five minutes to reduce the sliminess. Then I fry the pads in a pan with onions. You can also just chop the pads and eat them raw in a salsa with tomatoes, onions and hot peppers.

Some other resources from our blog for what to do with prickly pear fruit:

A prickly pear fruit cocktail

Juicing prickly pear fruit

Prickly pear jam recipe

If you’re not in our warm and dry-ish region a good resource for other edible perennials is Eric Toensmeier’s book Edible Perennial Vegetable Gardening.

Can’t grow prickly pear? Tell us your favorite easy to grow edible perennial in the comments!

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9 Comments

  1. I have managed to kill a prickly pear cactus, but it took special effort: Machetes followed by a couple of years of chickens.

    I know the thorns aren’t much compared to some other cacti, but the pain it is to remove them (duct tape, tweezers, glue, repeat) is even worse than seeing seedlings damped off.

  2. What’s it feel like if you miss a thorn or two and accidentally it eat, i assume it’d be smaller than fish bone, thus harder to detect.

  3. Tree collards are dependable, delicious and easy to propagate in SF / coastal Northern California

  4. You are very brave to prepare nopales. I have tried many times in my life time….and also the cactus pears, but one needle spine in the roof of my mouth and the joy is gone. They are coming into season in the local Mexican markets and not expensive so I will let someone else do the work. I know there are ways to singe the needles off and maybe that would be a way to do it. But until I am really hungry I will let the brave people have what is growing in my yard.

  5. I’ve grown Opuntia here in zone 5 mid-Michigan (it grows up into southern Ontario). I placed it in a small south-facing bed of sandy gravel between the edge of our house and our driveway, and over 5 years, a few small pads became a 3′ x 4′ patch with over a hundred flowers each summer.

  6. I had a large prickly pear cactus with vicious spines, growing in my front yard. It had beautiful yellow flowers. It grew to be quite large, and then it got some sort of disease, turned gray, and collapsed.
    I now have two other members of the opuntia family that I started from a few pads that I liberated from the plants by the side of the road. One only has very small spines–quite smooth looking medium sized pads–and the other one also has minimal spines but very large pads that almost look like hands. It is now taller than I am. I may investigate eating some of the pads. However, they are for sale, ready to eat, in the grocery store here in South Texas.

  7. Here in the north east, Rhubarb is a no-brainer that you can’t kill. Really good in pies and oatmeal.

  8. I’ll second rhubarb. I’m in Saskatchewan where we’re bracing for a few nights of -6 C, and I’m sure the rhubarb will come through with no trouble. My other favourite perennial is chives. They’re so quick to sprout in the spring, and after months of frozen winter, I’m just delighted by a fresh green thing in my yard.

  9. Well what can I say.. Cactuses are just awesome. Never thought they are meant to eat, although there is one guy on youtube who specializes in eating them raw with spines. Guess in our Polish climate would be possible to grow a Cactuse in the garden? Godbless sir.

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